3/10 Advertising for The Great Wall centered on one question — “What were they trying to keep out?”
The Mongols. They were trying to keep out the Mongols.
In the 11th century, European mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon) has crossed Eurasia in search of China’s mythical weapon — black powder. His band of 20 men has been reduced to just two by bandits in the Gobi Desert and a mysterious monster by the time he and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) reach the Great Wall of China. The Nameless Order, a special military division that watches the wall, captures them, and they bear witness to the swarm of the tao tei — ravenous monsters born of a fallen emperor’s greed that pose an extinction-level threat if they reach the capital.
At its best, The Great Wall is goofy fun. The sweeping, impressive first set piece is tinged with a delightful absurdism. Soldiers in brightly dyed armor bungie-jump down the wall to impale the monsters. It’s the kind of ridiculous action sequence you’d expect from an international release and not what you’d want to point to as a movie’s best aspect, but it’s fun.
And it’s only about 15 minutes of the movie.
The Great Wall feels a lot like baby’s first blockbuster, like it was made by a group that wasn’t watching for pitfalls primarily because they didn’t know what pitfalls would look like. We know that’s not the case. Zhang Yimou has been making critically acclaimed movies for 30 years, including seven of China and Hong Kong’s Best Foreign Language Feature submissions. This is an experienced filmmaker who ought to know better.
It’s got that second act drag that movies get mired in when they can’t keep the tension building. The plot elements are all there — Crane Troop commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) has the hots for Garin, Tovar and Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) want to steal the black powder and escape, strategist Wang (Andy Lau) discovers that the traders’ magnet could disable the tao tei — but they’re boring. It all feels much less related to the main conflict than it actually is. When the movie does try to break out into its second and third big action sequences, they’re bogged down in plot the same way the dialogue is.
The Great Wall is a significant moment in cinematic history. It’s been clear for years that China would soon be the dominant film market, and Hollywood has tended more and more to make movies that are dumbed down to reach a lowest-common-denominator international audience. But for the most part, the movies were still distinctly American and made for the rest of the world. The Great Wall is distinctly Chinese and made for the rest of the world.
But because they’re going for the same global audience in the same ways, The Great Wall is even more distinctly similar to the kind of pulpy blockbuster that does well internationally — Transformers, Warcraft, some of the most hated, annoying movies of the past few years. That’s the aftertaste The Great Wall leaves — not of a new direction for international movies, but a bolstering of the direction they were already going.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.